English has distinct words for the male and female of many common animal species. For example, we have bull / cow, rooster / hen, ram / ewe, stallion / mare, boar / sow, man / woman.

However, we also have words for castrated male animals (those which have had the testicles removed): steer, capon, wether, gelding, hog, eunuch.

Do the male terms include or exclude the castrated case? If I refer to a male sheep as a ram, and it later turns out to be a wether, have I spoken incorrectly or merely imprecisely?

I would be interested in common, technical, and historical usage.

  • 3
    Although originally used differently, today hog is often used for domestic swine in general, not solely for the castrated ones. Similarly, wether can be used for the general male sheep not matter the state of its boybits. However, outside of the word bell-wether, I doubt many people who do not raise sheep know the word wether any longer.
    – tchrist
    Dec 2, 2012 at 19:30

4 Answers 4


Properly speaking, these terms are not exclusive; for example, it is perfectly correct to describe a steer as a "castrated bull". However, "bull" is certainly not the usual term to use for a castrated bull. This is due to a process that's sometimes called "Q-based narrowing" whereby preference for a more-specific term causes avoidance of a less-specific one in certain cases. For example, a thumb is usually referred to as a "thumb", not a "finger", but no one would bat an eye at the phrase "ten fingers and ten toes".

  • 4
    +1 for "Q-based narrowing". I never knew the name for this phenomenon. Dec 2, 2012 at 16:11
  • This is not how the terms are used in practice, though. If you say you have 10 bulls, that could not include 5 steers. Dec 2, 2012 at 16:16
  • 2
    @MarkBeadles: Right, but given enough context, it can be possible to refer to a group of five castrated and five uncastrated as "ten bulls". For example, if the castrated ones have just been castrated, especially if the uncastrated ones are just about to be, and everyone knows that that's what's happening, then it's still reasonable to refer to the whole group as "all ten bulls".
    – ruakh
    Dec 2, 2012 at 16:45

The terms are exclusive. A bull is not a steer, nor a steer a bull; similarly for the other terms. This definition is because the different variations have different roles in agriculture; a bull is used for breeding, for example, and a capon is used for eating. So if you are speaking to a farmer or rancher, you will be regarded as speaking incorrectly, not merely imprecisely.

In common usage with folks who don't work with animals often, the distinctions may not be fully appreciated and so imprecise terms may be used. For example, many North Americans at the grocery store may not appreciate the distinction between capons and hens for eating.

  • 1
    Note just at the butcher, but on the table as well.
    – tchrist
    Dec 2, 2012 at 19:31
  • Re exclusivity, if it is not bull, what kind of animal is a steer then? A cow? A bovine? Something else?
    – Mitch
    Dec 2, 2012 at 21:01
  • 2
    @Mitch what to call a single individual animal of the species Bos taurus is tricky in English: see this question for example. There is no generally used or accepted generic word for cow/bull/steer, unlike (say) for horse. Dec 3, 2012 at 14:55

Technically, any time there is a name for the castrated animal apart from the male name, that is the correct name to use. You would not call a steer a bull, for example, because a bull has testicles and a steer does not.

Names for castrated animals normally fall under the category of domesticated animals. Deer, for example, are not normally domesticated, and so we don't have a name for a buck that has lost its testicles. It would still be a buck even though it could not perform the duties of a buck, and so it would have to be added that it was a castrated buck.

  • So you are saying that bull by definition refers only to an intact animal. I thought that might be the case, but the dictionaries I consulted don't make that distinction. Do you have a source? Dec 2, 2012 at 16:01
  • Let's just start with the first entry in the New Oxford American Dictionary: "bull noun 1. an uncastrated male bovine animal." This excludes castrated male bovine animals, which are known as steers.
    – Robusto
    Dec 2, 2012 at 16:44
  • Let's now go on to the first entry in M-W: 'a male bovine; especially : an adult uncastrated male domestic bovine.' 'Q-based narrowing' is apparently a preference rather than a Papal edict. Dec 2, 2012 at 16:45
  • 2
    @KristinaLopez: OED: "The male of any bovine animal; most commonly applied to the male of the domestic species (Bos taurus); also of the buffalo, etc." Dec 2, 2012 at 18:26

There are several factors to be taken into account here.

Firstly, it depends on how human you want your subject to appear to be. For example, in cases where animals have names, even though they are castrated 'he' or 'she' is applied to them to give them a personality. Especially when related to activities like raising young ones.

But, taking the example of Eunuchs, I do not think it would be appropriate to call a castrated animal by its former gender as it would misrepresent its current state.

  • 1
    First, you cannot ever use the word it on human beings, regardless of the state of their reproductive organs: it dehumanizes them and reduces them to an object. Second, you cannot use castrate and she together, because castrate does not mean to remove the sexual parts of a female, but only of a male.
    – tchrist
    Dec 2, 2012 at 19:24

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.